Harassment - Some Definitions and Guidelines for Coaches and Athletes

Published April 10, 2009

The harm of harassment
Harassment has been a “hot” issue in sport for many years. It’s not that harassment in the sport environment is new – it’s just that it is now more visible and is receiving more attention and discussion.

When harassment occurs in sport, it denies people the right to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness. Left unchecked, it can lead to an unhealthy environment. It contributes to low team morale, increases turnover of volunteers and staff, increases insurance and legal costs and tarnishes sport’s image in the community.

On a personal level, harassment can affect a person’s health, athletic performance, job effectiveness and self-esteem. It can result in anti-social and violent behaviour, and personal and family problems.

A defining characteristic of harassment is that it usually occurs where one person is in a position of power over another, or has the trust of another, and then abuses that relationship. A clear example of such a relationship in the sport setting is that which exists between coach and athlete. Participants in sport can be vulnerable to harassment because the sport environment is characterized by close physical and emotional relationships and complex power dynamics.

Definition of harassment

In general terms harassment is defined as comment or conduct directed toward an individual or group of individuals that is offensive, degrading or threatening. Harassment can take many forms, whether physical, verbal, emotional or sexual and often, it combines several of these elements. Sexual harassment is one type of harassment and is defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the sport environment or leads to adverse consequences for those to whom the conduct is directed.

At its worst, harassing behaviour is easy to discern – but in its less extreme forms the definition is not so clear. Not everyone perceives behaviour the same way and the definition of harassment will always have a subjective element. This makes it difficult to clearly prescribe preferred norms of behaviour for coaches, athletes and other participants in sport.

Clear examples of harassment

Some forms of behaviour are clearly and easily characterized as harassment. In its extreme form, harassment is an offense under the Criminal Code. Harassment on the basis of race, colour, religion, age, sex, marital or family status, disability and, in most provinces, sexual orientation, is discrimination under federal and provincial human rights legislation and is also against the law. Hazing or initiation rites that single out a person or a group of persons and subject them to embarrassing, degrading or clandestine behaviour will almost always be viewed as harassment.

The “grey zone” of harassment

Not all of us view behaviour the same way. As one moves away from the extreme examples of harassment, what one person views as acceptable behaviour another person might define as unacceptable. For example:

  • Words or actions that I may perceive or intend as a joke, another athlete may view as embarrassing or insulting.
  • In normal social interactions, an invasion or crowding of personal space might seem intrusive to one person but may reflect another person’s more physical or tactile way of relating to people.
  • A coaching strategy intended to produce peak performance in a player or team may be viewed by one person as strong and assertive and thus acceptable, but by another as overly aggressive and abusive.
  • A coach’s congratulatory hug, kiss or pat on the behind might be perfectly acceptable to me but might make another player feel uneasy and vulnerable.
  • Flirting may leave one person feeling confident and positive but may leave another person feeling uncomfortable and awkward.
  • Cultural differences can give rise to conduct that is acceptable and tolerable to some but invasive, uncomfortable or even threatening to others.

Guidelines for behaviour
The subjective aspect of harassment in the “grey zone” makes it difficult to know what is right and what is wrong. The following guidelines may be helpful as you think about your own verbal and physical interactions with coaches, players and other participants in the sport environment:

  • Would I do this or say this if my significant other were present? (for example, my spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend)
  • Would I want another person to do this or say this to someone I cared about, such as my spouse or my son or daughter?
  • Would I want to be seen on TV or in the newspaper doing this or saying this?
  • As a male coach I am comfortable interacting with female athletes a certain way – for example, by giving them a neck rub or a hug. Would I be as comfortable interacting with male players, or other males, the same way?
  • Would I say this or do this to an athlete if the athlete’s parents were present? If the athlete is an adult, would I do this or say this if the athlete’s spouse or partner were present?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “no”, then the behaviour is in the “grey zone” and is not acceptable.

Those individuals who coach a team should treat all team members, regardless of gender, equally, consistently and respectfully. Any behaviour that singles out certain individuals on the team for special or different treatment is also in the “grey zone” and should be avoided.

Players and coaches should also think about the impact that their words or actions might have on others. Is there a possibility that what I am about to say or do might make someone else feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or intimidated? If the answer is “yes” then refrain from the conduct or choose your words differently.

The sport organization’s commitment

The Centre for Sport and Law is committed to helping sport organizations support a sport and work environment that promotes equal opportunities and prohibits discriminatory practices.

We believe that harassment is an important issue and those in sport need to be more knowledgeable about what kind of conduct constitutes harassment, and more educated about the positive and healthy ways that coaches, athletes and participants in sport can interact.

These definitions and guidelines are one step in educating people about the issue of harassment and about appropriate conduct in all aspects of the sport experience.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law website (April 2009)

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